The North Island's tourist playground mixes heart-thumping thrills with mind-soothing chills.
Affectionately known among New Zealanders as "Rotovegas" because of its no-holds-barred tourism focus (without the casino), Rotorua set itself up as a tourist destination in the 1800s. Its pink-and-white terraces were the country's first attraction and people had to pass through sleepy Rotorua to reach them. A volcanic eruption buried the terraces in 1886 but Rotorua dusted itself off, opened a bathhouse (now Rotorua Museum) and reinvented itself as the spa capital of the South Seas.
Today, Rotorua receives 3.2 million visitors a year and they don't come just for a good soak. Of course, the geothermal features make themselves felt, from the distinctive aroma of hydrogen sulphide to the steam rising from vents and mud pools hot enough to boil you alive. Nature's roulette wheel, that's Rotovegas.
After breakfast, head for Rotorua's favourite forest, Whakarewarewa. In the late 1800s, the NZ government planted 170 species of tree to replace slow-growing native forests lost to farmland and timber plantations. Californian coastal redwoods, in particular, thrived in Rotorua's volcanic soil, growing three times as high as their North American counterparts. The six-hectare Redwood Grove is at the heart of the 5667-hectare Whakarewarewa Forest. Six walking trails, ranging from half-hour strolls to eight-hour epics, begin with an amble past these 100-year-old redwoods. The one-hour Waitawa Walk (3.4 kilometres) also has European larch, Douglas fir, giant Mamaku ferns, NZ silver ferns and a thermal pond. Pick up a Whakarewarewa "manky" from the gift shop before your walk - it's a nifty microfibre map-handkerchief with a walking track guide on one side and mountain biking trails on the other.
The Redwoods and Whakarewarewa Forest, five kilometres south of the city centre, is always open to walkers and mountain bikers; gates for vehicle access open at 5.30am and close at 8.30pm. Entry is free. The gift shop and visitor centre is open from 8.30am-5.30pm Monday to Friday and 10am-5pm weekends (October-March). Mankies cost $NZ10 ($7.80). See redwoods.co.nz.
Keep driving south past the Blue and Green lakes to the Buried Village. Te Wairoa was a staging post for tourists on their way to the terraces but on June 10, 1886, Mount Tarawera (12 kilometres to the east) erupted, spewing rocks, mud and ash. A local family bought the site in 1931, opened tearooms and began excavations. Today, Buried Village has a modern museum, settler cottages and Maori whare (huts), excavated sites and Victorian relics. There's even a forest walk to an 80-metre waterfall.
Buried Village, 1180 Tarawera Road, is open from 9am-5pm daily, cafe closes at 4.30pm. Entry costs $NZ31. Guided tours take place daily. See buriedvillage.co.nz.
North of Rotorua is Agroventures - adventure central. The newest ride here is the Shweeb, a recumbent bike in a clear pod, hanging below an elevated track, which you can pedal at speeds of up to 45km/h. Then there's Swoop, NZ's only giant tandem swing; Freefall Xtreme, a 746-kilowatt wind tunnel that gives the sensation of skydiving without the leap from a perfectly good plane; the Agrojet and the ubiquitous bungy. Nearby is New Zealand's only Zorb, another world first, which tumbles down a grassy hill with participants tumbling inside it; and the Ogo Fishpipe, an inflatable human hamster wheel.
Shweeb sessions cost $NZ39; combine it with Agrojet, Swoop or Freefall for $NZ80, or with a bungy jump for $NZ120. See shweeb.co.nz. Zorb rides start at $NZ30 a person. See zorb.co.nz. Ogo Fishpipe rides cost $NZ15. See ogo.co.nz.
Worked up an appetite? The Lakeland Queen paddle steamer's one-hour lunch cruise takes you past Mokoia Island (a kiwi and wildlife sanctuary), Sulphur Bay and Rotorua's lake shore. The buffet includes cajun chicken, poached fish, steamed vegetables, salads and assorted cakes.
Lakeland Queen's express lunch cruises depart at 1pm daily and cost $NZ54; two-hour lunch cruises are available. See lakelandqueen.com.
The most photographed building in NZ might be the heritage-listed former bathhouse that is now Rotorua Museum. It was the Great South Seas Spa when it opened in 1908 and has been a museum since 1969 and an art gallery since 1977. The museum's new Don Stafford Wing, named after a local historian and writer, provides more space for, among other things, an innovative exhibition about the Te Arawa, Rotorua's first inhabitants. There's also a basement exhibit of the old bathhouse, a cinema and a rooftop viewing platform.
Rotorua Museum is open from 9am-8pm daily. Entry costs $NZ18. There are free guided tours on the hour from 10am-5pm. See rotoruamuseum.co.nz.
Next door, in Rotorua's Government Gardens, is the heritage-listed, Spanish Mission-style Blue Baths: Hollywood-inspired pools of pleasure built during the Depression that operated until 1982. Repurposed and opened in 1999, the baths have a quirky museum where the men's changing rooms used to be, two geothermally heated freshwater swimming pools (open from 10am daily) and Rotorua's hottest new seasonal bar, the Summertime wine bar.
Pool entry costs $NZ11. See historic-venues.co.nz.
Cable cars can bring out the child in anyone: step in, press your nose to the transparent plastic and look down at Rotorua and its lakes. Skyline's gondola isn't just for daytime sightseeing: glide up the side of Mount Ngongotaha to Cableway Restaurant and Bar, 487 metres above sea level, for a nine-course buffet dinner with views. The menu includes fresh seafood dishes such as mussels, marinated raw fish and poached salmon. There's also a carvery, grill, salads and desserts.
A buffet dinner at Skyline's Cableway restaurant, open from 5.30pm, costs $NZ70, including gondola ride; Cableway is also open for lunch from 11.30am. See skyline.co.nz.
"As a spa, Rotorua has no superior in the world," James Cowan wrote for the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts in 1903. Late evening is the best time to go to Polynesian Spa, locals say. The 26-pool complex includes 13 private pools, adults-only pools, family pools and acidic and alkaline pools. For the ultimate indulgence, try Lake Spa - it has four outdoor alkaline pools, ranging from 36-42 degrees, on the lake.
Polynesian Spa, Hinemoa Street, is open daily from 8am-11pm . Entry from $NZ14.50 for the Family Spa; $NZ43 for the Lake Spa. See polynesianspa.co.nz.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand, Destination Rotorua Marketing and Holiday Inn Rotorua.
Getting there Air New Zealand flies to Rotorua direct from Sydney
(3hr 45min) for about $470 on Tuesdays and Saturdays, or daily via Auckland or Wellington from Sydney and Melbourne for about $570 low-season return, including tax; see airnewzealand .com.au. A three-hour airport transfer by road from Auckland to Rotorua costs $NZ25 ($20) one-way, see intercity.co.nz.
Getting around City Sights has hop-on, hop-off buses visiting 13 major attractions hourly such as Skyline, Agroventures, Zorb, Rotorua Museum and Polynesian Spa. A 48-hour Explore Rotorua pass costs $NZ30. See citysights.co.nz.
Staying there Holiday Inn Rotorua, 10 Tryon Street, has rooms from $139 a night. See holidayinn.com/rotorua.
More information See rotoruanz.com.